Thursday, May 17, 2018- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a press conference in the West Wing of the White House.
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:25 P.M. EDT
SANDERS: Good afternoon. As you all know, President Trump is deeply committed to our veterans. These brave men and women have given so much to our country and deserve our absolute best, which is why this President is fighting for reform and accountability at the VA.
In keeping with his campaign pledge, the President donates his salary on a quarterly basis to further important projects. Today, the President is proud to donate his 2018 first-quarter salary to the Department of Veterans Affairs to support their caregiver programs.
Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie is here to accept the check. I’d like to bring him up to say a few words about how these funds will be used.
And make sure that I give you —
ACTING SECRETARY WILKIE: Thank you very much, Sarah.
SANDERS: — the all-important actual check.
ACTING SECRETARY WILKIE: Thank you very much, Sarah. And good afternoon.
Before I address the President’s generosity, I want to say a couple of things about what happened in the House yesterday. I want to send my thanks and the thanks of Veterans Affairs to the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Dr. Roe, and thank him for the bipartisan coalition that he forged together. The vote yesterday was overwhelming, 347 to 70.
And this is long-awaited legislation that our veterans have been waiting in anticipation of. This takes seven community care programs that we have been using for the last 15 to 20 years and condenses them into one. It also makes it much easier for our veterans to obtain care that they need at the moment that they need it, in homes and in facilities closest to where they live.
This also opens up the Caregiver Program to long-waiting communities within our veterans’ world — those veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War who have not had access to a community caregiver program that was opened up for those who have served in the military since 9/11.
So with this strong bipartisan support, we urge the Senate to take up the House bill and give it to President Trump, hopefully before Memorial Day.
But I also want to single out the major veteran service organizations. Thirty-eight of them signed a letter in support of this legislation to the House and Senate leadership. Their people have been walking the halls of the Congress for the last week. They will be in the Senate next week, and we can’t thank them enough for their support for our nation’s 20 million veterans.
And Sarah, I want to thank you for the announcement. I want to thank you for President Trump’s generosity. The President’s gift underscores his promise to do all that he can for veterans, which includes supporting those who care for our veterans — not just those of us at VA, but the husbands, the wives, the families, and the community caregivers who are out there day in and day out making life easier for those who have borne the battle.
President Trump understands the critical role of caregivers in meeting the essential needs of America’s veterans.
So we have already earmarked this gift for caregiver support in the form of mental health and peer support programs, financial aid, education training, and research.
I am deeply grateful to President Trump for providing me the opportunity to serve America’s veterans and for his generosity in supporting them.
So thank you, Sarah, and thank you to President Trump. I know how much this means to American’s veterans. Thank you.
SANDERS: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Lastly, this week is set aside each year to honor those across our country who wear the badge. In the spirit of Police Week, I want to read a quick letter from Samuel of San Antonio, Texas that he sent the President:
“Dear Mr. President Donald J. Trump,
Last year, I raised about $375 for our police. I went down to McDonald’s and bought 75 $5 gift cards so the police officers could get coffee or lunch. It would be really cool to meet you. I wish I could vote for you, but I’m only 11. But my mom voted for you. I’m starting a fundraiser called, “A Break for the Blue.” I listen to your talks, and I went to the inauguration and saw you. You’re awesome.
Thankfully, I had the honor of meeting Samuel earlier today. He was adopted by his family in Guatemala. He is incredibly grateful to be an American, and he’s very grateful to all of the law enforcement officers around the country.
The President is very proud of Samuel and believes our country needs more young people like him who give back to their communities. And he’s a really, really great kid and it was great to meet him.
And with that, I will take your questions. John.
Q Sarah, we haven’t had a chance to hear of any kind of an in-depth analysis here. Where are we with the summit with Kim Jong-un? And the statements that we’ve heard over the last few days out of North Korea, do you think that these throw in jeopardy the idea of a summit? Or is this just North Korea doing what it does in trying to get the best deal possible?
SANDERS: Look, the President is prepared and will be ready to meet, and we’re continuing to move forward with the preparations at this point. And if the North Koreans want to meet, we’ll be there. And at this point, there is not a lot of change beyond that, and certainly not in our process.
Q So what North Korea is saying now about the joint military exercises after Moon Jae-in said Kim knows that these take place and he understands that they have to take place. I mean, what game is North Korea playing?
SANDERS: You’d have to ask North Korea what game they’re playing. I can tell you what we’re doing, and we’re continuing to move forward in preparations. And the President, as we’ve said all along, will be prepared and ready to meet. And there’s really not a lot to add beyond that point.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. What leverage does the U.S. have as it relates to having this meeting take place on June the 12th? And to that meeting actually taking place, when it takes place — if it takes place — what leverage does the U.S. have over accomplishing the American goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula?
SANDERS: We’re continuing in the maximum pressure campaign. But again, nothing has changed on our end. This was an invitation that North Korea offered and that we’ve accepted, and we’re continuing to move forward in those preparations.
Q But on another issue on —
SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to keep going because we’re really tight on time today.
Steve, go ahead.
Q If I could just follow up on that. What the North Koreans also announced was they were stopping the dialogue with South Korea. So is it possible that there could be a meeting between the United States and North Korea if that whole dialogue between the North and South is on ice?
SANDERS: The meeting that would take place on June 12th is between the United States and North Korea, should it take place. We’re going to meet with President Moon next week. And beyond that, again, there are no changes at this point to our schedule or anything else.
Q Sarah, does President Trump believe that the FBI had a spy at one point inside his campaign?
SANDERS: I haven’t spoken with him directly about that, but certainly seen the reports. And if there is any truth to that, it should certainly be looked into.
Q And what is —
SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to keep going just because we’re tight.
Emerald, go ahead.
Q Thank you. Following up on Blake’s question — if it is proven without a shadow of a doubt that there was a spy planted in the Trump campaign, does that change the President’s position on firing Robert Mueller?
SANDERS: I’m not going to speak about hypotheticals or get into what could happen if. We’ll move forward in the process and make a determination at that point.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The Iraqi elections are over and it’s very clear that the two big winners — the two top vote-getters — were the party that was linked to Muqtada al-Sadr, a sworn enemy of the United States and someone aligned with the Iraqi Communist Party. And the second-place finisher was the party aligned with Mr. al-Amiri, a warlord who was once backed by Iran. What’s the U.S.’s attitude on a government in Baghdad having either of those individuals as the key player?
SANDERS: I’ll start with the fact I’m glad you said the names and not me — (laughter) — because I probably wouldn’t have gotten them right. But in terms of our policy, we don’t have any new policy announcements with a potential change there.
Q So you don’t care if either of them is —
SANDERS: Certainly we care, but I don’t have any specific changes in U.S. policy while that’s happened.
Q Sarah, what does the United States expect out of negotiations today with China on trade? And what are the President’s intentions on helping or changing the policy towards Chinese company ZTE?
SANDERS: In terms of the meeting, I’ll start there. Those conversations are ongoing. When we have something from that, I’ll be happy to share it with you. But right now, those are just discussions and there’s nothing to add to that at this point, since they’re just now taking place.
I can say that we expect that the President will meet with the head of the Chinese delegation later this afternoon.
Q And ZTE?
SANDERS: On ZTE — look, the United States and China relationship has a lot of issues that we have regular, ongoing conversations about: national security, trade, and ZTE is one of them. As we’ve said before, and as the President has stated, he’s asked Secretary Ross to look into the issue and do whatever is consistent with the law and regulations. But right now it’s just something that he’s asked them to look into.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Also on trade, the President said yesterday that Mexico does nothing for us, especially for the border. We know there are talks today on NAFTA — today and tomorrow. And I wonder if the administration is going to condition any NAFTA deal on a safe third-country agreement with Mexico, or Mexico stepping up to do more to absorb asylum-seekers and other migrants who are seeking entry to the U.S.
SANDERS: I’m not going to get into the trade conversations at this point because they are ongoing and those are negotiations that we’re in the middle of. But I can tell you that the President does want to see Mexico step up and do more. There’s a lot that comes through their country, and he wants them to be tougher and more aggressive on that front.
Q Thank you, Sarah. This morning, the President marked the one-year anniversary of the Mueller investigation, saying it’s disgusting, illegal, unwarranted, and a witch hunt. But his own FBI director yesterday said it’s not a witch hunt. Does the President — why does the White House still believe it’s a witch hunt? And why did he cancel his news conference this afternoon, which was originally set for three o’clock with the NATO Secretary?
SANDERS: Different topics. But the President knows that there was no collusion in the campaign and he has been quite clear about this. It’s gone on for over a year. They found no evidence of collusion and still strongly believe that it’s a witch hunt. I’m not sure how we could be any more clear and certainly not sure how the President could be any more clear about his beliefs in his opinion.
In terms of a press engagement, the President will have press at his event here shortly, which is why we’re going to have to keep it quick and short today and likely take a few questions at that event.
Q Thanks, Sarah. On immigration, there seems to be — we’re moving closer to action in the House of Representatives and I’m wondering what bill the President would accept anything short of the four pillars that he laid out earlier this month. Something like border security and DACA, it seems to be a proposal that is gaining steam. Is that something that the President could support?
SANDERS: The President definitely supports border security, as he’s laid out multiple times and again talked about some yesterday. He would like to see the border security, he would like to see the loopholes closed. Our priorities have not changed in the immigration conversation at all.
Q Thank you. Just going back to North Korea, you have said that the President would be willing to meet with North Korea if North Korea is. So does that put North Korea in the driver’s seat here? Is it North Korea that’s going to decide whether a meeting takes place? And also, the President said yesterday that the White House hadn’t heard anything from North Korea. Has that changed? Have you heard anything since these talks were called off with South Korea?
SANDERS: They’re certainly not in the driver’s seat. Nothing could be further from the truth. But they’re the ones that extended the invitation; we’ve accepted it. If they want to meet, we’re happy to do that. If they don’t, as the President has said, we’ll see what happens. But we’re going to continue the maximum pressure campaign in the meantime.
I don’t know how they would be in the driver’s seat in any capacity, form, or fashion.
Q Well, is the White House setting a standard for “We won’t meet with you unless you do X, Y, and Z”?
SANDERS: Look, the North Koreans have already made concessions. They’ve already — three Americans are home now that weren’t. The President has had some success in this process, and certainly we’ve given up nothing. And we are going to continue moving forward, and we’re moving into this with our eyes wide open. We’re not naïve in this process, but the President is fully prepared to have the meeting. But if not, that’s okay too. And we’ll see what happens beyond that.
Q I know we’ve asked this a few times, but —
SANDERS: That’s okay. That’s kind of what we do here, ask the same question over and over and over again.
Q Can you say yet when Michael Cohen stopped being the President’s personal lawyer?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get into anything on that matter. You’d have to reach out to the President’s outside counsel.
Q Yeah, but you still haven’t been able to answer that.
SANDERS: Jill, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Why didn’t the President disclose the reimbursement to Michael Cohen in last year’s financial disclosure report? And just to follow up on other peoples’ questions on North Korea, has any consideration been given at this point to potentially canceling those joint military exercises with South Korea?
SANDERS: On the first question, that was addressed in the financial disclosure and that’s something that would be determined by White House Counsel — how things would be categorized in the filings.
And on the second part, those are ongoing exercises that are routine and they’re aware of, they’re annual. And at this point, we have no intention of changing it.
Q I just want to ask you, because so many people around the country have been talking about it in the last 24 hours, what did the President mean when he said some immigrants are not people, they’re “animals”?
SANDERS: The President was very clearly referring to MS-13 gang members who enter the country illegally and whose deportations are hamstrung by our laws. This is one of the most vicious and deadly gangs that operates by the motto of rape, control, and kill. If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they’re more than welcome to.
Frankly, I don’t think the term that the President used was strong enough. MS-13 has done heinous acts. It took an animal to stab a man a hundred times and decapitate him and rip his heart out. It took an animal to beat a woman — they were sex trafficking — with a bat 28 times, indenting part of her body. And it took an animal to kidnap, drug, and rape a 14-year-old Houston girl. Frankly, I think that the term “animal” doesn’t go far enough. And I think that the President should continue to use his platform and everything he can do under the law to stop these types of horrible, horrible, disgusting people.
I’m going to take one more question. Peter.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Are the chances of a summit now less likely than they were a week ago before these statements came out from Kim Jong-un?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get into a percentage game. I can tell you that we’re ready and prepared. And if they happen, they happen; and if they don’t, we’ll see what happens.
Thanks so much, guys. We’ll see you here in a few minutes with the President.
1:25 P.M. EDT